The frigid night air cut through the Lieutenant’s army issue coat as the stopped in the knee deep snow to survey the perimeter. A heavy snow continued to fall on this Christmas Eve 1944, but it was not a silent night. The flashes of artillery lit the sky and generated a rumble like distant thunder as the young officer finished his tour of the unit’s outposts. He was an officer in Company B, 87th Chemical Mortar Battalion, the men who fired the big 4.2 mortars which were so critical to the effort of the infantry to advance. They were someplace in Belgium, he really had no clue where, and for the first time in a while the battalion was together again. All four companies had been brought in to help stop the German breakthrough. They didn’t know it, but the 87th was about to be thrown right into the heart of the Battle of the Bulge.
As the Lieutenant finished his rounds he wearily dragged himself into the monastery where the command had taken refuge for the night. The warmth that enveloped him as he entered the large community room was certainly welcomed. He glanced around and saw his comrades sprawled in every available space. They were bedraggled and exhausted after 201 days of almost continuous combat, and by the looks on their faces you could tell that it was only going to get worse. Despite the thickness of the monastery walls, a new sound intruded, the quick crack of tank gunfire.
Everyone knew what that meant, American tankers were making a last ditch stand against the German armored columns in the area. They were outnumbered and outgunned and their Sherman tanks stood no chance against the awesome German Tiger tanks, but they fought anyway. When the battle ended, and it would before dawn, then the 87th became part of the last American line of defense. The war hung in the balance, and so did the lives of everyone in the ancient house of God.
The Lieutenant found a place to sit against one wall and sank down in exhaustion, gratefully accepting the wine, bread and cheese being offered by the monks. In the corner of the room, a soldier fiddled with the dial of a radio, finally picking up the armed forces station. Christmas carols filled the room, but only added to the loneliness. Then as, the sound of the tank battle increased in intensity, a new song started on the radio, Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas."
For the Lieutenant the song immediately invoked memories of the sights, sounds and smells of Christmas on the farm in Mason City, Iowa and of how far away he was from those he loved. He could not help himself, the tears began to flow and embarrassed, he glanced around the room to see if anyone had noticed. His eyes fell first on the Company Commander, Captain J.J. Marshall, one of the toughest men the Lieutenant had ever known. The Captain sat ramrod straight, unashamed, as tears streamed down his stubbly cheeks. It was universal that night, strong men, the bravest of the brave, cried over a Christmas carol, and over the homes many would never see again.
As dawn broke the next morning, Christmas Day, the battalion was again split up with Company B assigned to take up mortar positions in support of what was left of the 289th infantry, 75th Division, and defend a Belgium village called Sadzot, a key location in the thin American defense line. For three days they fired their mortars in support of the hastily assembled defense units, and then disaster struck. Early in the predawn hours of Dec. 28th enemy elements of the 12 SS Panzer Division, the infamous Hitler Jugend, broke through the infantry lines and overran the mortar position.
They hastily assembled all of the men they could, and the mortarmen fought a delaying action, fighting hand to hand and house to house against overwhelming numbers. As the fighting retreat continued, they men of company B were joined by remaining elements of the 509th Parachute Battalion which had formed a new defensive position north of the village. There they held until reinforced and then joined a counterattack which retook the village, and recaptured six of their nine mortars and most of their vehicles.
It was later learned that this makeshift force of Americans had successfully stopped a major attack by German troops designed to capture a major highway intersection which would have broken the American line. No one has ever been able to tell me how they won. History recorded it as a classic situation where the attacking enemy held all of the advantages, yet was stopped by the cold determination of a hand full of defenders on the verge of physical and mental collapse. Somehow, they emerged victorious, with Company B reporting almost half of its men killed, wounded, or missing.
For his actions during the defense of Sadzot the Lieutenant and the other men of the company received both the French and Belgium Croix de Guerre medals. I know the story of that lonely Christmas Eve and the ensuing days from my Father’s diary. He was the young Lieutenant, Roy E. Connelly, Co. B. 87th Chemical Mortar Battalion. He would read that story to us on Christmas Eve every year until his death in 1987, and then I took over the job with my children.
He never read it without crying over the friends he lost during that Christmas season of 1944, and to this day, I can not read it or even write about it without the same reaction. What was done during that six day period by the men of Co. B and the other companies of the 87th, who also held the line, surpasses the ability of most of us to comprehend. They fought for each other, and they fought for us. We must never forget.
FOR MY DAD, AND THE MEN OF THE 87TH
Michael Connelly: Author of “The Mortarmen”